James M Deem
I am the author of many books and articles. I am a retired college professor. I have been married for over 35 years and am the father of four grown children (ages 24 and 29--this is a puzzle; figure it out). We live near Tucson, Arizona.
Like Julian Drew, I was born in Wheeling, West Virginia. I have also lived in Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and New York.
I have a Bachelor's degree in language arts from the University of Kansas and taught high school English and French for three years. After earning both a master's degree and a doctorate in reading education at the University of Michigan, I began teaching college students. For twenty-seven years, I taught reading and study skills to underprepared college students; I retired to write fulltime in early 2003. My favorite things to do are spending time with my family, reading, researching, writing, and traveling.
How I became a writer
I became a writer in the fifth grade. Sometime during the winter of that year, I was playing with a group of friends in the woods behind our houses when we came across some strange tracks in the snow. They didn't look as if any familiar animals had made them (they were big tracks) but they didn't look human either. They looked like some kind of monster tracks--and I knew just what kind: space aliens had made them after their spaceship had crash-landed in our woods. Well, we never found out what they were that day (and the snow had melted by the next day) but we had a great mystery for one day at least.
That day when I went home I took out a notebook and began to write a chapter book. After all, I had read every Hardy Boy book, and I knew that those tracks would make a great story. I wrote a title at the top of the page (The Strange Tracks Mystery), and then I wrote one page and stopped. I had the idea but not the ability to follow through at that point. But that's how I began my life as a writer. I wish I still had that first page, but I lost it.
A year later, I tried again, this time with a short story. I loved science fiction movies, and so I created a story called The Green Eyed Monsters. This time I finished it. I went on to write for school newspapers and yearbooks. By the time I got to college, I had decided to become a teacher to pay the bills. At first I taught high school English, but after I received my master's degree, I switched to teaching college students. For twenty-seven years I taught them how to develop their reading, vocabulary, and study skills--and I can think of no more rewarding work, except perhaps writing for children.
The subjects I write about
I write both nonfiction and fiction.
I chose to write about ghosts first, because I was petrified of them when I was little. Before I was born, my grandfather had died of a heart attack while sitting on my grandmother's green damask sofa with the caned back. I remember the first time I heard this fact: I was seated on that very sofa when my grandmother mentioned that I was sitting in the exact spot where my great grandfather had died. That experience convinced me to make a nightly ghost check: under the bed, in the closet, behind the door. I had to shut the closet door tight and make sure that no clothes were hanging over my desk chair (they might turn into a ghost at night).
As my career continued, I changed direction and wrote about historical and scientific subjects that I discovered as an adult: bog bodies, Pompeii, and glaciers, by focusing on the archaeology of humans.
More recently, I have chosen to write about the Holocaust (specifically, a death camp known as Auschwitz and a four-day pogrom called Kristallnacht), a subject that is difficult--but very important--to read about.
That was followed by a book I have wanted to write for many years: Faces from the Past: Forgotten People of North America! It concerns the facial reconstruction of historic skeletons that have been found across North America.
Finally, my latest book is entitled The Prisoners of Breendonk. It is my longest and most challenging nonfiction work. It introduces the reader to the prisoners of a little-known camp run by the SS in Belgium.
What's next in nonfiction? You'll have to wait and see!
Fiction: When I was in high school, I secretly began to write what was to become some twenty-seven years later a novel eventually entitled 3 NBs of Julian Drew.The first draft of that novel, which was an untitled stream of consciousness narrative, is nothing like the novel that was published, but it was the beginning of a story that I knew I had to tell.
Divided into three notebooks (or NBs in the special abbreviated and coded language of the narrator), the book tells the story of an emotionally (and sometimes physically) abused teenager who addresses his NBs to a person named U, a person he has not seen for four years. The reader senses that Julian is in great pain because of U, and his memories of U spur him to begin keeping the notebooks. As he does, he invents a code to keep some of his innermost (and most disturbing) thoughts safe from the prying eyes of two people that he labels 43 and 543.
I don’t like to describe events in my books that are better left to readers to discover on their own, so I cannot say much more about 3 NBs. Still, I have been asked many times if the novel is autobiographical. My answer is always a carefully qualified “yes.” The book was based on some of my childhood experiences, but I did not live the life of Julian Drew.
For example, at one point Julian writes “The Story of His Life” for an assignment in his English class. The facts that he relates include these: he was born in Wheeling, West Virginia; his mother died a few days after fifth grade ended; three months later his father remarried a woman who had two children; his father and stepmother began to treat Julian badly in West Virginia. After the family moved to Arizona, he was treated badly there as well.
Although these facts are also true about my own life, I allowed my imagination to wander freely beyond those factual boundaries. I created U (a different U than my own U), the NBs, and many other parts of the story about Julian. Just like our similar initials, our lives shared certain events, but our behaviors and outcomes were very different. I had been writing stories since the sixth grade; Julian didn’t like to write or even speak. That change alone made us very dissimilar people. My own teenage years were also not as poignant as the life I devised for Julian. By reinventing the facts of my life for a character, I was able to tell a better story.
I used the same technique in my novel, The Very Real Ghost Book of Christina Rose. I created twin characters (Christina and Danny) that faced an unexpected, tragic loss when their mother died. Then I let my imagination loose; it began to create all sorts of ghost stories that belonged in the book.
Initially, writing the book was a challenge for me. I thought at first it would be narrated by Danny, but Danny didn’t like to speak, and I knew that he wouldn’t want to write. . . . so that left me with Christina to tell the story. I had no idea how to write a book in the voice of a ten-year-old girl, until I began to hear my own daughters’ voices in my head; as soon as I imagined that they were telling the story, the book began to write itself.